Saturday 24 June 2017

'Caribou' by Erica Plouffe Lazure

My grandmother twists her arms into her apron and warns my sister and me some version of what she always warns: those boys downtown are after one thing only. Yet in mirrors we apply lipstick for those downtown boys. Lips slick, taut across our faces in honeycrisp and poppy hues, then self-smack into blotted ghosts on tissue paper. We’ll gloss later in the car. Ginny wads her tissue, misses the basket. Granny scoops it up just as Ginny notices, a silent scold about cleanliness, about precision. But Ginny and I were never precise. As girls we quit the Brownie Scouts early, annoyed by the brown and orange smocks and the pack of equally ugly and pigtailed girls from Troop 301. We’d pinned what merit patches we could muster onto our sashes and complained to Granny about Troop 301 but never said a word about the older girl, the mother’s helper, a Cadette named Jeanette. During weekend sleepovers, Jeanette would single out a Brownie and torture her all night. Count her freckles. Cover her face with pepperoni. Pull out the button eye from her teddy bear or what have you. One night I was Jeanette’s Brownie, and because my name rhymes with caribou, that’s what she called me. It stuck and nearly a decade later I still hear her sneer every time someone calls my name. But I keep it to myself.

It’s kind of like with our lipstick. And the gloss we save for the car. You can’t eat with all that stuff on your lips, so it helps keep us skinny. It’s impossible to kiss a downtown boy, too—but we would never give Granny that kind of assurance. So we leave the house in tiny skirts and platforms she no longer bothers to protest; it’s not a battle she could win, given all she’s already lost. And besides, her strain of worry is more about us giving away what Jeanette already took, long before we found lipstick, long before the downtown boys had the power to draw us outdoors after dark, glossed lips and all. But Ginny and I keep to ourselves about that, too. We never mention the night Jeanette named me Caribou, how she slipped into my sleeping bag when everyone else was asleep and apologised and then asked to make it up to me like in the movies and so we did and then some and the feet of my pyjamas began to sweat and she was so close and crying, holding me, whispering, over and over: I’m Sorry. I’m Sorry. But in the moment that I needed to kick out of that hot zippered bag, did I see in the dark a shine in Ginny’s eyes, her solemn lips pressed in a line, watching and silent, letting me let it happen?

Another thing about gloss in the car: it keeps you from talking too much. So I never ask. But then again, Ginny is the only one who calls me by my given name.

First published in Erica Plouffe Lazure's flash fiction collection Heard Around Town, Arcadia Press, 2015.

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